The Magazine

Willful Misunderstanding

When JFK was assassinated, liberals couldn't stand the truth. Can they now?

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By JAMES PIERESON
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The idea that Kennedy was a victim of the far right surfaced the day after the assassination in an influential article by James Reston on the front page of the New York Times. Reston was then chief of the Times Washington bureau, and his piece ran under the headline: "Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in the Nation." Reston wrote,

America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young president, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.

He continued to develop this theme: "The irony of the President's death," he wrote, "is that his short administration was devoted almost entirely to various attempts to curb this very streak of violence in the American character." He went on to observe that, "from the beginning to the end of his administration, he was trying to damp down the violence of extremists on the Right." The fact that the assassin was a violent extremist from the left did not deter Reston. He blamed the right wing notwithstanding the fact that a detailed article listing Oswald's Communist associations ran adjacent to his article.

The developing consensus about the assassination implied strong parallels between the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy. Both, after all, had been cut down in their prime in the midst of the struggle for equal rights. President Kennedy's funeral was scripted in important ways in imitation of Lincoln's, so much so that Russell Baker could write, also in the Times, that "the analogy to Lincoln's death must have been poignantly apparent to most of those who passed [Kennedy's] flag draped coffin." Under the circumstances, it would have been difficult for a dissenting voice to challenge the wishful consensus.

President Lyndon Johnson, for his part, was concerned that Oswald's Communist loyalties could lead to another round of anti-Communist recriminations that would complicate his diplomatic efforts with the Soviet Union. He was thus not displeased with the developing consensus that Kennedy had been a victim of the far right or of a climate of violence. A week after the assassination, in a Thanksgiving message to the nation, Johnson urged Congress to pass a civil rights bill as a memorial to his slain predecessor.

The cultural and political understanding of the Kennedy assassination was soon detached from the details of the event itself. Instead of accepting the facts and following them to a logical conclusion, the liberal leadership of the country came together to formulate their preferred explanation. Surprisingly, they made that explanation stick, producing no end of questions and conspiracy theories about who was really responsible. And because the false but prevalent explanation was one that blamed American culture itself, it unjustifiably shook the faith of many Americans in their institutions and way of life.

Five years later, in 1968, President Kennedy's brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Los Angeles on the evening of his victory in the California presidential primary. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, decided to kill Kennedy after reading that he had made a campaign pledge to support Israel. Sirhan was determined to carry out the murder before the anniversary of the Six Day War in the Middle East, which had occurred almost exactly a year earlier. Yet this event, too, was portrayed as if it reflected some distemper in American society about bigotry and violence.

The repercussions especially of the long-running misunderstanding of President Kennedy's assassination should serve as an object lesson for anyone who would distort the facts surrounding the events at Fort Hood. Whatever those facts turn out to be, we will be far better off facing them than pretending that they are other than what they are.

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism.